When will the Maoist rebellion end? Home minister Rajnath Singh had two definite answers that were actually vague. On 7 October, while addressing troopers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in Lucknow, he suggested a timeframe of “One, two or three years." On 15 November in Raipur, delivering a mid-election stump speech in the capital of Chhattisgarh, he spoke of the rebellion’s “last phase"; that it would end in “three to five years".

Or ten. In all probability left wing extremism will endure in one form or another, in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere.

As it happens, southern Chhattisgarh is the present-day adamant core of the Maoist rebellion, its military and social laboratory. And, thereby, the core of the government’s intense pushback. It’s a roiled landscape of some myths and several realities.

Election turnout

On 20 November, much of Chhattisgarh would attend the second phase of general elections to its assembly to decide the fate of an incumbent three-term Bharatiya Janata Party government and its three-term chief minister, Raman Singh. Who wins and who loses will be known on 11 December when votes are counted. But a judgement of sorts already appears to have been delivered on 12 November, when the southern region of this tamarind-shaped state voted. This is significant as this region, sometimes called Dandakaranya, spilling over to eastern Maharashtra, northern Telangana and southwestern Odisha, is where the ongoing edition of the Maoist rebellion will likely make its last stand.

Democracy made a mark despite sporadic and somewhat desperate we-are-present-notice-us Maoist attacks on election day; even if, going by initial estimates of the Election Commission, the voter turnout in some constituencies in the Maoist zone was lower than in 2013. Irrespective of which party wins in the “Maoist" constituencies, and the party or coalition that will form the government in December, propaganda victory will be claimed by government—in Raipur and New Delhi—and rebels alike. It happened earlier in 2013, and 2008. It’s in the nature of this war.

Here, just to be able to vote in the face of a call for boycott by Maoists is a victory of citizens’ rights, even if that right is secured by security forces in the most militarized and policed zone in India after Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of northeast India. It’s the counterbalance to an armed rebellion that has never shied away from imposing its will on people it claims to be saving from corruption and exploitation. Maoists suffer dissent poorly, and employ justice that includes kangaroo courts. The judgement is often a public execution.

At another level, though, a win for democracy rings hollow, because this war won’t be won with television outrage and Twitter patriotism. Because, more than 50 years after the so-called Naxalbari movement was triggered in May 1967, left-wing rebellion exists on account of a lack of governance and inadequate justice in some of India’s poorest, most-neglected regions. Some of the darkest horrors in independent India were recorded here.

Maoists watch as villagers dance in a forested area of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh in 2012. Photo: AFP
Maoists watch as villagers dance in a forested area of Bijapur district in Chhattisgarh in 2012. Photo: AFP

Salwa Judum days

You may recall Salwa Judum. Created in 2005, and feeding quite legitimately on the intimidation and heavy-handedness of Maoist rebels against tribal communities, the vigilante group that comprised tribal people quickly spiralled into a deadly application of command and control. I have documents that prove how the local administration helped create and channel Salwa Judum. I’ve published these to zero denial and zero lawsuits.

Salwa Judum was initiated by Congress leader Mahendra Karma (who was, with several other Congress leaders, killed in a Maoist attack in May 2013). The state’s BJP government led by chief minister Raman Singh nurtured it with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi at the time.

Vigilantes in concert with police and paramilitaries destroyed homes, and stores of grain and any other food they had; killed dozens of men, women and children; maimed and/or raped several. Children were forced to watch the death and dismemberment of parents. Pregnant women were disembowelled. There were recorded instances of death and torture of those suspected of allying with Maoist rebels. To deny rebels recruits and support, 50,000 tribal folk were herded into what amounted to concentration camps across Dantewada district (this includes the new districts of Bijapur and Sukma created from Dantewada in 2012). There was always talk of businesses being complicit—some of India’s biggest private and public sector companies chose to operate in the conflict zone.

The Supreme Court noticed. It delivered a landmark judgement in 2011 on Salwa Judum and its thinly veiled successors such as Koya Commandos. The two-judge bench quoted from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart Of Darkness in their order to disband the vigilante groups. They noted how runaway business interests were often “necessarily violative of principles that are ‘fundamental to governance’" and that “the collusion of... industry... and some agents of the State, necessarily leads to evisceration of the moral authority of the State..."

There was even a move in 2015 to revive Salwa Judum, with the blessings of the government. It was unsurprising; I had once heard Raman Singh describe Salwa Judum as “Gandhian" and “like a fragrance of the forest in summer". There is now a Bastariya Battalion in CRPF, largely comprising tribals from southern Chhattisgarh. Even today, here human rights are largely a concept.

Dandakaranya Zone

Chhattisgarh’s Maoist history is a curious one. Rebels began to infiltrate southern Chhattisgarh in the 1980s—it was then part of the vast and socio-economically backward Bastar district of the undivided Madhya Pradesh—to establish what would later enlarge into their Dandakaranya Zone. The move was initiated by a vanguard of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) People’s War, among the largest Maoist factions in India at the time. The group and its allies—hence the moniker People’s War Group—were under increasing pressure in undivided Andhra Pradesh from invasive attacks by its specialized and brutally effective “anti-naxal" force, the elite Greyhounds. The rebels needed fresh territory, and Dandakaranya—greatly forested and peopled by a greatly ignored and exploited tribal population—was ideal for both rebellion and sanctuary.

Conflict began to gradually escalate from the early 1990s. When in 2004 the People’s War faction merged with the Maoist Communist Centre, the largest extreme left-wing group in east-central India, to form the rebel conglomerate of Communist Party of India (Maoist), Dandakaranya was in full rebel play. The deepest parts, like Abujmarh, ran what the rebels called Janatana Sarkar, a basic communist enterprise in which rebel teams sought to provide primary healthcare, basic irrigation, farming advice—and ideological grounding and governance—in geographies utterly abdicated by the state.

Fourteen years later, Dandakaranya—largely southern Chhattisgarh—remains the key rebel hub, even as the rebellion has come under severe stress there and elsewhere in India, in West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and of course Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The rebellion has lesser—but also severely stressed—aspects in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, and southern Madhya Pradesh. Most Maoist-affected states in India, including Chhattisgarh, have a surrender and rehabilitation policy, and it rides tandem with search-and-destroy missions that police and paramilitaries provide. This pincer has massively depleted rebel leadership and ranks.

Undivided Andhra Pradesh showed the way, and West Bengal and Jharkhand became adept at combining police and central government paramilitaries to contain—even decimate—rebels, and then offering the long-delayed manna of half-way house development and governance in an attempt to ensure future rebellion remains dampened. Today, a couple of dozen districts, primarily in southern Chhattisgarh, eastern Maharashtra, southwest Odisha, southern Bihar and parts of Jharkhand remain acutely in the zone of the rebellion.

New strategies

For their part, Maoists have for long recognized their disadvantage, and tried a number of things from reworking strategies in both war and recruitment—the latter steadily focusing on recruiting and promoting personnel in the rebel-held areas. One key meeting took place in Usabeda, unmarked on most maps. This hamlet in Narainpur district—spawned from Bastar in early 2012 along with eight other new districts—lies close to Gadchiroli in Maharashtra. Several Maoist leaders and cadres met for a strategy conference in September 2012. Insiders told me at the time that the meeting focused on military aspects of the rebellion. The action-plan was tasked to the military chief of the forested, mineral-rich Dandakaranya zone.

It was a re-thinking exercise to secure existing areas and strengthen new areas, and make their depleted numbers more effective. Rebels planned to mass in strengths of not less than hundred cadres for major operations. That was demonstrated within weeks in Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur.

The heart of the approach in a way underscored a back to the basics: to inflict casualties for the primary reason of gathering weapons and ammunition to augment a squeezed supply line. To this end, the tried-and-tested practice of luring security forces into ambush with diversionary tactics—false information about movement and numbers of rebels, and such—would continue to be employed in addition to intelligence and opportunity. This largely continues to be the primary Dandakaranya playbook for Maoist rebels. And this is pretty much what the security establishment has learnt to mirror, also with varying degrees of success.

As far back as 2012, there was a buzz that the Maoist leadership was planning an alternative sanctuary across the state’s eastern border, in Odisha. It tasked a member of its politburo with the responsibility. The area being spoken of in security circles was adjacent to the Chhattisgarh districts of Bastar and Kondagaon—another of the new districts carved out of Bastar. Adjacent to the rebels’ stronghold in Dandakaranya zone, the plan was also to bolster a corridor along Odisha’s western border with Chhattisgarh to link up with comrades further north in Jharkhand. This plan would also facilitate the southward movement of weapons and ammunition from Bihar and Jharkhand into Odisha and Dandakaranya.

The pipeline is under pressure and talk of a sanctuary in that area hasn’t surfaced for some time. Many within security agencies subscribe to the likelihood that Maoist chief Muppala Laxman Rao, or Ganapathy, has gone to ground in the relatively inaccessible Abujmarh area in south-western Chhattisgarh, primarily in Narainpur and Bijapur districts. In 2017, the newsmagazine Outlook depicted a somewhat luxurious bunker with a three-room suite as residence for Ganapathy and a loyal group of cadres.

As I wrote in Mint earlier this year, unless Ganapathy, known to be quite ill, hasn’t taken flight like his older colleague Prashant Bose, or Kishanda, and CPI (Maoist) number two who is rumoured to have adopted a range of guises from mendicant to teacher across Jharkhand and Bihar, then Dandakaranya—though perhaps not the fanciful bunker—is where he will likely make his last stand, or quietly pass on from age and infirmity.

Left-wing rebellion won’t end with him—I believe it won’t end until poor governance does. There is speculation of a successor. Nambala Keshav Rao, who goes by the nom de guerre of Basavraj (or Basava Raju) is 10 years younger than Ganapathy, who is 69. Basava Raju is the long-time head of the CPI (Maoist)’s central military commission, the umbrella operational command.

Meanwhile, it has taken several years for the relationship and coordination between the state police and CRPF to rise above the level of bad blood, and coordination and information snafus. It was first brutally exposed by the spectacular April 2010 attack by Maoist rebels on a sitting-duck patrol of CRPF in southern Chhattisgarh. Seventy-six troopers died in that attack. Coordination is now better, although Maoists still carry a sting and capitalize on weaknesses and carelessness of the security forces even as they themselves bleed copiously. Twenty-four CRPF troopers were killed in a Maoist attack this July; several more died in preceding weeks. In late October, several CRPF troopers died when Maoists blew up their “mine-proof" vehicle.

Few speak of peace in this atmosphere, a curious matter when compared to the government going great distances for peace accords with Naga and Assamese rebel groups, which for decades trumpeted secession from India. There hasn’t been a single worthwhile peace overture to Maoists since a violently abortive one in July 2010. In October 2014, media reported Raman Singh as saying that Maoist rebels and their associates “are part of our society". And, that he is “ready to hug them if they wish to join the mainstream by laying down arms and quitting violence".

He hasn’t said anything similar since. Neither has Rajnath Singh. Meanwhile, there’s the usual form of talk-talk, fight-fight: one, two, three, five—or ten—years’ worth. But who’s counting?

(Sudeep Chakravarti is a columnist with Mint, and the author of several books including Red Sun: Travels In Naxalite Country and Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons Of Business And Human Rights In India.)

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